Student renters face landlord conflicts

by Beacon Staff • October 11, 2006

According to Anderson, his new seven-bedroom rental unit was to include garage facilities, a washer and dryer, and a 42-inch plasma television.,When Kent Anderson, a junior print journalism major, and his roommates moved into their apartment on Sept. 1, they were excited about the many amenities that had been promised to them when they signed their lease a few months before.

According to Anderson, his new seven-bedroom rental unit was to include garage facilities, a washer and dryer, and a 42-inch plasma television. However, when he arrived at his Allston apartment at the end of the summer, Anderson learned that the building had a new owner and the services and facilities he and his roommates had been looking forward to were no longer available to them.

New rules were in place that prevented them from using the garage, while empty spaces existed where the laundry machines and television had once been.

"We were really disappointed, but more than that we were pissed off, because we felt misled," Anderson said. "We went through every idea from contacting lawyers to cops."

Anderson and his roommates were able to avoid an expensive legal process, however. After several discussions with the new property owner, they were able to negotiate both the replacement of their laundry units and access to the garage but have had no luck with the television.

"I guess the previous tenants stole it, but it should still be replaced using their security deposit or something since it was promised to us," Anderson said. "Basically, we got screwed out of a nice TV."

Meanwhile, Samuel Wachs, a junior TV/video major, and his six roommates moved into their Brookline apartment last month, only to learn their building was in violation of health codes, and an addition had to be built in order for the building's management company to stay in accordance with the law.

"There is definitely something very shady and illegal about this," Wachs said, referring to the property owner's decision to move three of the tenants' beds out of the basement, which had been deemed "unlivable," for the benefit of a fire inspection. Wachs said the owner later moved the beds back downstairs after the examiners left.

With 55 percent of Emerson College undergraduate students living off campus, much of the school community is affected by the often capricious nature of Boston real estate and management companies.

Christy Letizia, Emerson's coordinator for Off Campus Student Services (OCSS), said her office encounters these issues every day and is available to help students comb through a problem with a roommate, landlord or real estate company.

"OCSS can talk through the situation with the student and inform them of their options for a course of action," Letizia wrote in an email to The Beacon. "We also have relationships with many state agencies in Boston that are tenant-supportive, and we can refer students to the various agencies that can help them."

Lori Fanara, legal counsel for the Boston Rental Housing Resource Center, gives a workshop each year for Emerson students who are thinking of living off-campus. In an interview, she recounted a story she often shares at these events.

"When I first moved to Boston, I was looking for an apartment, so I called one landlord to ask about a listing. He asked me what I did for a living and I proudly told him I was a law student," she said.

"Click, he immediately hung up."

Fanara said she uses this experience to explain to students that they are not a protected class in Massachusetts.

"Landlords are legally able to discriminate against renting to students," she said. "If the man on the phone asked me my skin color and then hung up on me, then that would be different."

However, Fanara is also quick to point out that there are many property owners who will lease to students, and that once signed, college-aged tenants are protected by the same rights as all other renters.

At its office in City Hall, the Rental Housing Resource Center helps, among other things, to mediate problems between renters and landowners. According to Fanara, the majority of the calls the center receives are from students who have put down money on an apartment, with the expectation that a landlord or real estate company will stop showing a property but have yet to sign a lease.

"Parents will mail a 'holding fee', and then they never see the money again," she said. "There is no such thing as a holding fee. It's not legal that landlords are doing this. They can ask for first month's rent, last month's rent and a realtor's fee. That's it."

If a renter does encounter this problem, Fanara said he or she can bring the issue to the Rental Housing Resource Center, where the matter can be discussed or referred to the Rent Office or Boston's small-claims court.

Letizia, who said the OCSS will also direct students to the correct legal agency, added that her office is always able to provide students with information about Massachusetts renters' rights.

One Web site, recommended by the OCSS and the Rental Housing Resource Center, gives details of the Rental Unit Delivery Standards ordinance, passed on Aug. 23 by the City of Boston. According to the conditions of the city law, property owners must provide renters with a sanitary, safe environment that meets current fire and chemical codes, upon move in. Failure to meet standards will result in a $300 fine.

Leah-Vail Soloff, a junior broadcast journalism student, said she has used her renter's rights as a crutch to gain leverage against her landlord who did not immediately address a rodent problem in her Beacon Hill apartment. She said the threat got his attention, and the problem was addressed soon after.

Soloff said she has also found other ways to "get through" to her landlord when he ignores important maintenance issues.

"I'll e-mail him or leave him messages between six to eight times," she said. "If that doesn't work, I threaten to withhold rent."

While Soloff said withholding rent has worked for her in the past, Letizia cautioned students about this tactic.

"Withholding rent can be a very serious step to take. I recommend to students that they consult with an attorney and put notification in writing before taking [this route]," Letizia wrote.

Another measure renters often use is to file a complaint with the Attorney General's office against an agency or property management company, Fanara said. However, she said that this method also has its drawbacks.

"Filing a written complaint may make someone feel better, but it doesn't usually get you anywhere [legally]," she said, adding that often the grievance may leave a trail for someone doing research on the company, but that the issue at hand will not be resolved by the submission of the document.

Letizia encouraged students who are struggling with renters' issues to visit the OCSS for more information about mediation and legal options.

"It's important to know that there are many rights for tenants in Massachusetts," she wrote. "Emerson, as well as the state and city of Boston are here to suppo

rt students if their rights have been violated."